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Canada: The Global Middle Man

By Zach Paikin

Canada has a vital interest in securing a workable relationship with Russia in the 21st century. An amicable Russo-Canadian state of affairs is essential to advance multilateral cooperation in the Arctic; and a peaceful Arctic would remove one potential source of confrontation between the world’s major powers.

The current diplomatic spat between Ottawa and Moscow over Ukraine’s sovereignty may inflict significant damage upon this paramount partnership for the decades to come. There is no reason why both parties should not take constructive steps to repair the relationship. Doing so may require Ottawa to initiate some confidence-building measures in order to provide an opening for the Russo-Canadian bond to be restored.

Such measures should include Canada encouraging closer multilateral cooperation between Western capitals and Moscow. This metamorphosis in policy would not only assist Canada’s strategic position in the Arctic; it would also help advance Western interests more broadly, both over the short and long terms.

Throughout past centuries, coalition flexibility has been a major part of international stability. Alliances were not always set in stone, and coalition partners could vary depending on the issue at hand. One of the main objectives of Western states today is the containment and destruction of the Islamic State (IS). However, because of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, full-fledged cooperation with Syria and Russia – two countries in whose interest it is to see IS beaten back – does not appear to be on the agenda.

This is somewhat paradoxical. The current, Western-led, anti-IS mission has an inherent strategic purpose: to fight an organization that has no respect for national sovereignty, and to restore a semblance of order in a part of the Middle East that is rich in natural resources. And yet, despite the coalition’s obvious strategic aims, the inclusion of Russia and Syria is currently taboo. From the West’s perspective, Putin and Assad no longer possess the legitimacy required to be active players in maintaining the world order.

Put differently, Western states appear to be willing to isolate a major global power, somewhat appeasing the current mood of their respective electorates. This isn’t statesmanship, and Canada—an Arctic country that has a lot riding on stable relations with Russia in the 21st century—shouldn’t stand for it.

Moreover, cooperation with Russia is necessary to achieve many Western countries’ long-term strategic goals, including: advancing NATO states’ ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities and checking China’s rising influence. The successful implementation of BMD negotiated between North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) states and Russia would enhance the security of all Arctic powers, whereas slowing China’s geopolitical expansion would allow Arctic states not to be overwhelmed by Beijing’s circumpolar ambitions. Yet both of these issues have a scope that goes beyond the Arctic as well.

As Henry Kissinger notes in his most recent book, World Order, Russia’s foreign policy perceptions have been particularly consistent over the past centuries: A quintessential land power whose rivers run north-south despite the country itself being a west-to-east behemoth, Russia has needed either constant expansion or buffer states in order to feel secure.

Since the 2009 discontinuation of the American missile defense complex in Poland, it has become obvious that Russia’s cooperation is imperative if NATO countries are to protect themselves against the missile threat posed by rogue states. Moscow fears that unilateral NATO action on ballistic missile defense could undermine the nuclear balance of power in Europe, hypothetically leading NATO to strike Russia and then hide behind its defense systems. And although Moscow’s perception is exaggerated, neither the U.S. nor its allies may decide what is or isn’t a threat to Russia’s security.

Canada, under a Liberal government, initially opposed BMD cooperation with the United States, although several high-ranking Liberals, including former Foreign Affairs and Defense Minister Bill Graham, have supported it since. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has shown openness to the idea of ballistic missile defense cooperation with European states. But a scheme that would allow Russia to be an equal partner in the process is still lacking. Western states may have to accept that for the outcome to be successful, the plan may have to include Russian stewardship over BMD projects in Ukraine.

On the issue of China, there is a fear that Beijing's geopolitical rise could upset the global balance of power. One need not look much further than the Middle Kingdom's interest in global shipping lanes to realize that this could have a profound impact on the stability of the Arctic region. If military growth and economic cooperation among Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries are meant to act as a form of Chinese containment to the south, a Western partnership with Russia (along with Japan and South Korea) could serve as a means of checking Chinese power in northern and eastern Asia.

In recent years, Western states have had difficulty thinking in strategic terms. Short-term commercial advantage has, all too often, taken precedence in Western capitals over long-term stability. Canada once played a major role in helping to craft the post-war order, through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), NATO, the Bretton Woods system, international peacekeeping, and much more. Today, it can choose to play a meaningful part in creating the post-American order, to secure both its own interests and the stability of the world.

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Zach Paikin holds a Master of Global Affairs degree from the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

[Photo courtesy of Dennis Jarvis  and DVIDSHUB]

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